“Culture” is often ill-defined, overused, and misused as a causal force in discussions about human behavior. We have a need for more hard data and theory about the exact nature of what “culture” IS and what it DOES.
Enter Joe Henrich of the University of British Columbia.
When Joe Henrich was still in grad school he began the largest cross-cultural study ever done up to that point on bargaining experiments with real-live people – in the Amazon! Unlike most of the early work in testing out the predictions of game theory — that stuck to people living in modern societies — he went looking for people “off the grid”.
Comparisons of the Machiguenga result with a Los Angeles control experiment and existing cross-cultural data suggest that economic decisions and economic reasoning may be heavily influenced by cultural differences—that is, by socially transmitted rules about how to behave in certain circumstances (economic or otherwise) that may vary from group to group as a consequence of different cultural evolutionary trajectories. Consequently, if experimental games are to be taken seriously, in that they capture aspects of economic reasoning relevant to real life, and if the Machiguenga results stand the test of scrutiny and can be replicated elsewhere, then the assumption that humans share the same economic decision-making processes must be reconsidered.
In other words, we weren’t using the word “culture” correctly. Sure, Americans and Japanese are different — but are they different in the ways that matter to the research questions at hand? No.
Americans and Japanese are members of two of the most economically advanced and modern countries in the history of the world. You are far more like a random Japanese citizen than you are like a random person living in the jungles of the Amazon!
When it comes to answering questions about human behavior it is essential that we don’t over-play Distinctions without a Difference.
You may not use chop-sticks, but you do drive a car, live in a house with plumbing, you went to school, you are literate, you have watched television, you own a smart phone, and have a computer. All of these are standard (commonplace) among everyone in the first world — and they matter FAR more in most behavioral contexts than silly shit like what foods you eat or what language you speak.
In contrast, the people Henrich studied:
Traditionally, the Machiguenga lived (and some continue to live) in mobile single-family units and small extended-family hamlets scattered throughout the tropical forests of the southeastern Peruvian Amazon, subsisting on a combination of hunting, fishing, gathering, and manioc-based swidden horticulture. Economically independent at the family level, this Arawakan-speaking people possess little social hierarchy or political complexity, and most sharing and exchange occurs within extended kin circles. Cooperation above the family level is almost unknown, except perhaps for cooperative fish poisoning
Even though times have changed from tradition, much hasn’t.
Although most Machiguenga now live in small communities of about 300 people, they remain primarily a family-level society. This means that families fully produce for their own needs (food, clothing, etc.) and do not rely on institutions or other families for their social or economic welfare, although there is a constant demand for market items such as machetes, salt, sugar, and steel axes. With the exception of recent river trips to the nearest (minimum eighthourtrip) towns, anonymous transactions are almost unknown. When local bilingual schools (Machiguenga-Spanish) are not in session and the incessant rains of the wet season make travel difficult, many families move away from the community to live in their distant gardens, often located two to three hours away from the village (Henrich, 1997).
He says, “… anonymous transactions are almost unknown” — like the kind you make when you go to the gas station, a coffee shop, grocery store — or when you buy something on Amazon…
I’ll be going over more of his (and others) research in the next week, so I’ll leave all conclusions for later. But for today, remember to test everything, every assumption, everything you take as “obvious”.
We had to invent the scientific method because our human brains think in precisely the opposite way.
Now go lift something heavy,